Winter semester, 1990

Touch wood
The alloyed coin
No exit
No-name society
To purposes fickly faithed
Interlude: Lesson from Leo
Pulex in the rapids
In the brass's spittoon
The whited sepulchre
All-terrain vehicles
Salomé in the buff


Thirteen weekly letters written in 1990 reflect personal observations and feelings about Dawson College at that time. They are reproduced here in the autumn of 2017—with a few editing touches and footnotes for clarity.  0

Dear Colleague:  2

Nelson Mendela looks straight at me. His face on the magazine's cover can bedescribed only as noble—noble, that is, in the light of what I now know about him. How, I wonder, would I describe the same face if it were to belong to a person I don't know about?  3

Turning to the lead editoril, Freedom man, I find it to contribute little of value to my inventory. But it does contain a startling comment, one my mind can't readily accomodate. It goes: "Mr. Mendala's first job is to make sure that ...",&c. That, it seems to me is quite an assertion, made, as it is, by someone not in Mr. Mendala's shoes. I question whether an editor, even one so excellent and privileged as to serve on that important and highly respected weekly, The Economist, should tell Mr. Mendela what he ought to do first. One would think by now that Mr. Mendala has earned the right to set his own priorities. But, then again, I may be misinterpreting the true meaning of the editor's phrasing. The sentence may not mean the same exactly in my head as it does inside his. The editor's world and mine are different worlds, and Mr. Mendela's is one different still. Every person is a world. Every person is the sovereign of his or her own Kingdom.  4

* * *

Constructivism is a modern heory of knowledge. Unfortunately, and as a professional eductor I hate to admit it, I know next to nothing about theories of knowledge. Constructivism, incidentally, is so important that in the United States it is proposed for inclusion in the science curriculum. Can anyone imagine a brain surgeon who doesn'tknow his way about brains? How then can one be a mind surgeon without understanding mind? Ought I not to be booked for malpractice, really, and brought before a judge?  5

Because of my scant knowledge of constructivism, I shall broach the subject simply by quoting some quotes already quoted elsewhere.  6

"The idea that knowledge is constructed in te mind of the learner on the basis of preexisting cognitive structures or schemes provides a theoretical basis for Ausubel's distinction between meaningful and rote learning.  7

"'To learn meaningfully, individuals must choose to relate their knowledge to relevant concepts and propositions they already know. In rote learning ... new knowledge may be acquired simply by verbatim memorization and arbitrarily incorporated into a person's knoledge structure without interacting with what is already there.'"  8

"Without interacting with what is already there." Recognize the phenomenon? Of course you do as an observant teacher. But let's continue:  9

"... as Ausubel has stated,

        'If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.'"  

These quotes are from George M. Bodner, "Constructivism: A Theory of Knowledge," J.Chem.Ed., Oct. 1986, pp. 873–878. The quotes within quotes are from D.P. Ausubel, J.D. Novak, and H. Hanesian, Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View, 2nd ed., Holt, Rhinehart, Winston. New York, 1978.  11

* * *

We know what we know, according to Piaget—whose name certainly needs no introduction here—by active construction of our own world. This constructing is not done by any teacher; it is done by learners themselves. The teacher's role is merely to determine what building materials are required next and then to supply them. After that it is up to the student to put the pieces in place either by simple assimilation into an existing mental schema or, if they don't fit, by accomodation, wich is a change of mind such that new knowledge will fit properly. Accomodation involves resistance and struggle and, hence, may require attention and patience and strategies for prodding things along a little. Most people are not readily of accomodative mind. Theirs is made up. They are usually viewed as staunch, dependable types. Detractors call them pigheaded. But by whatever name one knows them, it is among these people we find the cause for our country's breaking up.*  12

As I mentioned, the subject of how we acquire knowledge is so important it should be taught in school. Here is the way the tenets of constructivism are outlined in Science for All Americans: A 2061 Report on Literacy Goals in Science, Mathematics, and Technology, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989 (p.71):  13

"People's ideas can affect learning by changing how they interpret new perceptions and ideas: People are inclined to respond to, or seek information that supports the ideas they already have and on the other hand to overlook or ignore information that is inconsistent with their ideas. If the conflicting information is not overlooked or ignored, it may provoke a reorganization of thinking that makes sense of the new information, as well as of all previous information. Successive reorganizations of one part or another of people's ideas usually result from being confronted by new information or circumstances. Such reorganization is essential to the process of human maturation and can continue throughout life."  14

* * *

A good climate in the classroom is vital for effective learning and one way of providing it is by doing on the blackboard lots and lots of exercises. Students, as far as I know, love this approach. Naturally, they expect that their exams will be composed of the same type of questions of which they have solutions in their classroom notes. Learning can be a tiresome business and students can do without too many unpleasant surprises. Especially if he or she holds down some job while going to college, or has to do a lot of travelling to and from school.  15

However, students will learn better if they do many exercises themselves and in many instances the examples in a textbook ought to be quite sufficient to start them off—one doesn't become a better ice-skater by watching the World Ice-Skating Championships. And it frees classroom time for other uses. There are plenty of things to be done besides demonstrations of how a teacher handles simple routines. I believe, though, that a teacher ought to demonstrate how he himself, or with the suggestions of his students, tackles real problems, but that subject is beyond the scope of these Letters. A classic marvel on this topic is G. Polýa's How to Solve It, Princeton University Press. And for some related beliefs I myself hold, you might read "Fleabyte Fundamentals: Promoting More Meaningful Learning, originally published in J. Coll. Sci. Teaching, Nov. 1989, p. 70.  16

If you do follow up on that latter suggestion you will understand why I emphasize in my general chemistry classes that I wish students to be capable of more than performing routine exercises. I tell them that, while I consider those exercises important steps in acquiring skill at solving more complex problems—problems more like real ones—they cannot be considered as ends in themselves. Don't they know that computers can do those problems automatically, faster and without error? Well, why then should anyone pay them a salary for something a $100 gadget can do better?  17

Classroom time is much needed for matters that urgently require accomodation, that somewhat painful process of engaging and modifying mental structures to acquire the kind of knowledge a modern chemistry course ought, by its nature and original intention, to inculcate. One problem that I encounter is that a substantial amount of elementary knowledge that should have been accomodatively acquired in some earlier course never was, but had only been assimilated. Teachers pass on their chores to subsequent teachers who should be less than grateful for that. Why? Wrongly assimilated knowledge does not fit properly. It is junk waiting to interfere with thought at some crucual moment. You may have experienced this kind of thing in your own mind as I certainly have. It does not serve a good purpose and probably damages the student. And it degrades subsequent courses.*  18

A teacher, or some committee, can get many students with such deficiences to pass a course by simply constructing exams that avoid detecting what is wrong. He may load up his examinations with routine exercises for which the more capable students have memorized the steps. He then simply forgives them for not knowing what they are doing. Indeed a time-tested way of avoiding diffculties is to not face them.  19

Ask Mr. Mendela.  20

Henry K van Eyken  21

* * *

How To Solve It  22

In the corner of her eye
        mascara began to run
        under torture of my teaching.  

"I understand the problem, but not the way you do it,"
        she said.
"Look, Sir, I did it! Same as in the book!"
        she said and showed me,
        high-lighted in yellow,
        the writer's rote routine.  

How often I've wished I'd done a problem
        same as in the book,
My lessons sanctioned by the powers
        vested in the printed word.
Unsullied peace
        for a class fed fare
        barely a Fleabyte fit.  

McTeaching at its comfy best ...  26

Ah, Polly!  27

Footnote, added in 2017

These letters were written at a time that the separation of Québec from the rest of Canada was very much on many people's minds.  *   fn1

I am speaking here from personal experience. When returning to school (Sir George Williams University) I was immediately given credit for Chemistry 101. Problem was that the chemistry courses I had taken about two decades earlier emphasized descriptive chemistry, i.e. the chemistry of substances whereas a modern first-year university chemistry course's primary objective is introducing students to the orbital model of chemical bonding, about which I knew nothing, zilch. There was a follow-up course with emphasis on atomic orbital energy levels, which I passed with an A, but not from any understanding of the subject but purely from rote memorization. After that, however, getting through my chemistry classes, including advanced inorganic and organic chemistry, became a nerve-wrecking struggle. One thought on my mind was that I would sort things out later, after getting my degree. And I did. As part of my studies for Master of Education I took a course in quantum chemistry, earning me an A. Sometimes you win one. The reader will appreciate that what I wrote about in my next letter comes from years of painful experience, an experience that has left its mark on my family as well.  *   fn2

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